Tag Archives: politics

The Age of WTF

There’s a computer game called “Age of Empires.” Well, technically there’s the original and eleven sequels and/or spin-offs. It’s a real-time strategy game, and it sucked me in. I could play that thing for hours, over and over. The premise is that you are the leader of a civilization, and you must advance your people out of the stone age through various eras, such as the bronze age, Medieval, etc.

In real life, we are supposedly in the technological age. I propose we redefine our current era as the “Age of WTF?!”

Why? So glad you asked. You didn’t? Eh, well, I’ll tell you anyway.

Ignoring the inanity of our obsession with movie stars and sports players, and the overall lack of common sense (as noted by the number of videos out there depicting people of all ages doing dumbass stuff), let’s take a look at education.

  • In my own little corner of the world less than half of the schools met standards, so they made their own standards, referred to as “adequate yearly progress”.

Translation: We suck, but so that you don’t feel bad about it, we’ll instead show you that we suck a little less than we sucked last year.

  • If not for a computer screw-up and Memphis City schools giving up and dumping all of it’s schools in the lap of the county school board, there would be no grades.
  • On the radio this morning I heard that a school in Canada was ending the honor roll program. I searched for the news story and found this. The author says just about everything I could, but without the sarcasm I would drip into every word. I’m a parent of three kids, and they are not carbon copies of each other. One is uber smart, but inconsistent. So, sometimes he makes honor roll, and sometimes not. Another has yet to pull all A’s, but she generally succeeds in earning all As and B’s. She’s proud of that, as she deserves to be. Little Miss Drama is a bundle of energy and brains, wrapped in hilarity, and boxed in randomizer….if randomizers existed outside of the internet. She’s smart, but getting all of those neurons to focus on such mundane stuff as spelling can be a task.

Is she or Mr. Smarty-Pants any less of person for NOT making the Honor Roll? Of course not! I very rarely made the A honor roll. I managed now and again, but I was more like Miss Diva. Still, having something to work toward gives them a goal with a tangible reward.

Instead of teaching kids to learn what they are capable of doing, to learn that they can’t be best at everything, so find what they are good at, and rewarding them, no let’s just make them toil for 13 years with no reward. Yep, that will definitely be good for their self-esteem.

  • Schools have sucked most of the fun stuff out. No tag, or running, and PE is a joke. Don’t climb on the monkey bars, you might fall and break something. Half the goofing around and antics my friends and I did in school, and note, we were the “good” kids, would now get us suspended or expelled.

Two of my friends favorite way to mess with me was to sneak up behind me and goose me. It didn’t matter how often they did it, my reaction was always a high-pitched screech. Yes, I still have that reaction, much to my son’s amusement. He claims I sound like a pterodactyl.

In today’s school: “ZOMG, he TOUCHED her! File a sexual harassment lawsuit! Put that kid in jail!”

  • Teachers get in trouble for the idiocy of other people.

Just yesterday, Mr. Smarty Pants shared with me that his science teacher felt the need to close the door, lest someone hear him teaching science and be offended. It seems in a prior year, when covering “touchy” subjects like evolution, a student berated the teacher for insinuating his ancestors came from Africa. That wasn’t the first time someone had taken exception to his teaching of science, which happened to disagree with their worldview. The poor man has to tip-toe around science. Really?

I’m sure I could go on ad nauseam.

I won’t even touch the insanity of politics.

I think I’ve presented enough evidence to support my theory. What say ye? Shall we henceforth refer to our era as the “Age of WTF”?

 

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The Mold Wars

Day 1

All quiet on the pollen front, but unexplained itching and sneezing have occurred. Counter-attacked unseen assailants with vitamin C.

Days 2-5

Repeated pressure attacks have occurred in the cranial region. Again, the pollen front is quiet, no rain in sight, but further surveillance has spotted steadily increasing mold activity.

Day 6

Carried out a preemptive strike with benadryl, allegra, and psuedophed. Ventured outside for an hour with the canine crew. By evening mold countered with intense itching, cranial pressure, and post-nasal drip.

Day 7

Preemptive strikes are failing to contain the enemy. Broke out the WMD: Nyquil. The collateral damage was thirteen hours of sleep, followed by lingering drowsiness.

Day 8

Avoided outdoors as much as possible and continued the preemptive strikes. Considering acquiring a human-sized hamster ball as a countermeasure. Countermeasure, however, lacks practicality.

Intel reports a vicious battle for approximately the next two months, after which, due to the cold, we’ll be restricted to indoors where dust mites will likely see a resurgence of activity. It appears that no end to the conflict is in sight.

~~~~~

While I joke about my allergies,  it often does feel as if my body is raging a pointless war, as mold, pollen, and dust are just about every freaking where, and my body insists on fighting them.

With our country on verge of carrying out more violence to supposedly curb another party’s violence, it is not my intent to make light of war and violence. It’s a nightmarish thing and I fear that we’ve set events into motion that will ultimately cost more lives than it will save. Whether soldier or civilian, my thoughts and hopes for safety go out to you.

The cost of science

In the current economic state everything gets boiled down to the bottom line. How many discoveries are we missing? More importantly, how many young scientists, like myself, see the battles our professors wage and think, “Ah, hell no.”?

I was chatting with a visiting student who is doing research in our lab for several months. She, as well as the other graduate student in my lab all say the same thing. We have no desire to do what our professor does day in and day out.

Why?

Being a professor now entails a bit of teaching, a lot of inane meetings, and spending way more than a mere forty hours a week writing grants, re-writing grants and prepping reports if you are lucky enough to have received funding. The stress must be intense, because not only is a professor’s career on the line, the livelihoods of every technician, student, and research assistant depends on him or her.

A professor from my undergraduate university gave a talk here this week for graduate student day.

“Imagine, ” she said, “that Charles Darwin proposed a grant for traveling around for a decade or so just to observe and think about how different species of birds are related. That wouldn’t go over.”

The imaginative out-of-the-box thinking has to take place on our own time while we juggle all the things that pay the bills. Sounds rather like being a writer in many ways.  In fact, she emphasized that the best scientists had outside creative interests which kept that right-left brain balance in check.

My boss is one of those dreamer types. He’s always saying he needs to start a company because grants don’t pay enough, but he has no patience for business and would likely give away a drug if it cured something, rather than charge a hefty price like big pharma. He has endless ideas, many of which he might never get a chance to pursue.

The emphasis on the bottom line, having to work with very little resources, fewer and fewer trained personnel and still deliver high quality data is likely driving the next generation of scientists out of academia.

Why should we teach when the universities want you to water everything down? Why dedicate every ounce of our energy into running a lab when funding has become just as political as Washington?

As both a mother and scientist the state of our society worries me. The decline of the educational system combined with the fiscal squeeze in research are going to cost us much more in the long run than we save by any current spending cuts. I can only hope that we repair our system before it crashes and burns.

Easy as A-B-C…

It should be as easy as…

1. Locate neighborhood school

2. Enroll child

3. Send child to school

If only.
Last February I jumped through hoops, including paying for private testing, to apply for acceptance into one of the city’s “optional” schools. Seeing as how the children have attended one of these optional schools all through elementary, supposedly the best public elementary in the city, I can assure you that there isn’t anything all that special about them other than the fact they met the required national standards.

Different optional schools have different requirements, but ideally most are geared toward college prep/advanced academics. By weeding out the not-so-bright kids, of course their stats go up.

Anyway, due to Mr. Smarty-pant’s inconsistent grades, despite being in the gifted and talented program, he could not get into one of the coveted handful of middle schools which are not failing. So, I looked at two charter schools and an “open enrollment” AKA “parent’s choice” school as backup. If your assigned school is failing, you get the option of applying via open enrollment to a non-failing school. Ninety percent of Memphis likely qualifies.

So, we were all set to go to the brand new charter school that opened, only we discovered that they cut the bus routes in our zip code.

Option 1: GONE

So, I called the second charter to which he had gained approval for enrollment.

And called.

And called.

And called again.

Nada

Option 2: GONE

Thankfully, he had gotten into my back-up to the back-up school, via open enrollment.  As expected, he was on the list at registration. Today, however, I get a call.

“Ma’am, we aren’t sure why Mr. Smarty-pants is enrolled here. In the system he’s assigned to Craptastic Middle School*”

“He got approved through open enrollment.”

“He’s not on our list.”

“He was on the list at registration.”

“Oh I see him. He’s on the optional school list?”

“No, OPEN ENROLLMENT. He didn’t get in via optional school application.”

—On hold music for five minutes—

“Nevermind, we’ve figured it out. Have a good day.”

Is it any wonder the kids are failing? The administration can’t even read their own lists.

 

 

 

Occupy science?

Today’s seminar began in the usual boring manner. Truth be told, many of us graduate students peruse Facebook or play clickity games on smart phones while some student, faculty, or in a handful of cases, a guest speaker drones on about their research. The Pharmaceutical Sciences consists of two very different groups of people: those making drugs and those making new ways to formulate and deliver drugs. In any case, no matter who they invite or who is presenting, half the audience tunes out and bemoans either the interruption in work or the chance to go home before dark. One poor guy started snoring today. I sympathize. I’ve napped during seminar more than I care to admit.

So as I clickity-clicked, I listened to the guest speaker point out the flaws with nanotechnology. My initial response of “Interesting, but not my field” began to shift as he drove his point home. He pointed to over half a dozen entrepreneurs that affected dramatic change in society by their inventions or ideas, making the ironic observation that most were college drop-outs. They dared to pursue a passion rather than remain within the defined confines of academia and business. He dared us, not to drop out of course, but rather to change the direction of science, to think outside accepted scientific dogma.

To be expected, his criticism of the nanotechnology bandwagon sparked heated comments, since half or more of the audience work in the area of drug delivery and nanotechnology. He pointed out that while nanotechnology has improved the efficacy of drugs and allowed decreases in dosing to alleviate dangerous side effects, it has not advanced medicine in any sizable degree over the past ten years. Nanotechnology has made a difference, but only as an incremental improvement, another tool to add to our drug discovery and formulation toolbox. Harnessing electricity, discovery of penicillin, the invention of vaccines: these are discoveries which vastly changed the quality of life for all humanity.

In the nineties we thought the genome project would answer everything, but a decade later we learned that one gene can play many roles. Then came the era of proteonomics, and then nanotechnology. Combine the bandwagon trend (if you aren’t working on the “in” thing, good luck getting funded) with the slow shift away from basic science the statistics show stagnant drug discovery. Even the National Science Foundation warns that this disturbing evidence combined with the decrease in government funding is bad news for the country and progress.

As a graduate student, and a person who never fails to ask “But why? How?” it’s become increasingly clear to me that there’s still far more we don’t know, despite our advances. Yet, ask any professor in the department, and if he or she can’t somehow show a direct medical application, funding is just about non-existent. Even for solid applied research funds are sadly in short supply. The complaints I hear lend me to fear that the funding, which is primarily by the government, is as laden with cronies and politics as Washington D.C.

I echo the concerns of the speaker today, but wonder, in a money driven society, can change really and truly occur? Even now I see my department shrinking before my eyes as funding dwindles to a trickle. A multitude of factors contribute, lack of focus on science in public schools, the increased cost of secondary education, poor economy, etc. What happens when all but the wealthiest universities can afford research programs in the basic sciences? The divide of rich and poor will grow and the country as a nation will fall farther behind the rest of the world.

What’s to be done? Like many things in this country, change is needed. We can start by encouraging young people to study math and science. For those of us already in the field and facing financial and ideological obstacles, I can only repeat the sentiment the speaker shared: “Pursue your passion. Persevere. Never give up.”